World of Warcraft: Dragonflight is hands-down the best Blizzard’s massive roleplaying game has felt since the Legion expansion back in 2016. While I love the aesthetic of dragon-filled skies and untouched lands, it’s for once not the lore and story arc that has me so enthused: it’s the core gameplay loop.
The 2020 expansion World of Warcraft: Shadowlands was so high-concept, with such a cool new direction, that it captured the zeitgeist. It was wild that a then-16-year-old game was breaking sales records internationally. But cut to almost two and a half years later, and it’s an expansion I’ll remember for all the wrong reasons.
The pandemic didn’t help, contributing to the largest drought of content of any expansion in World of Warcraft’s history. However, many of the development team's decisions felt bizarre. The rogue-like experience of Torghast was a new spin on gameplay, but Blizzard locked the best gear in the game – legendary items – behind it. Other players and I ended up jaded at the thought of spending hours a week grinding solo content in an MMO to get best-in-slot items. It wasn’t until the expansion's end that the developers indicated they were listening to players and started implementing quality-of-life improvements.
Dragonflight, by comparison, feels silky smooth. It’s refreshing to see Blizzard apparently listening to feedback and respecting player time from the get-go. It took me a little while to understand what I was supposed to do when I first hit max level. In previous expansions, when I reached the end of the main quests, I’d unlock a checklist of daily tasks to complete to get to the content I enjoyed.
Rather than being funneled into distinct and often conflicting content types, the new, less restrictive end-game approach the developers have implemented, with player power tied merely to gear and freely-swapped talent builds, has been freeing. But more than this, my time now actively feels respected. I’ve spent several weeks comfortably past the level cap, and my journey getting there was seamless. The abundance of side quests meant I’d plenty to do after completing the main campaign. And the quests rewarded me with the gear I needed to enter into heroic dungeons. And in those dungeons I leveled my gear higher until I was ready to tackle them on mythic plus difficulty.
I remember running around the hub city of Oribos in circles in Shadowlands, waiting to get enough people in my party to take on a dungeon, as the world was too disjointed to do more than one thing at a time, but the new systems in Dragonflight mean I’ve got plenty of short, satisfying tasks to be getting on with while I wait, so I never feel like I’m sitting in a digital waiting room to begin enjoying the game.
The world design of the Dragon Isles is so tight, and so well integrated with the new engagingly speedy dragonriding system that while I’m gathering a party, I’m also swooping around finishing off world quests, searching for collectibles, or completing world content like Centaur Grand Hunts or Tuskarr Feasts – all of which gradually earn me reputation that advances the new-and-improved Renown system, and are also handily designed around dropping in and dropping out for when I want to take off to do something else.
Almost every reputation has an infinitely farmable aspect that I can focus on if I really want to double down on reaching my next renown level and see what goodies I’ve unlocked, and then I can head back to engaging with gear advancement content like dungeons and PvP when I want to make some headway increasing my item level.
Smooth as butter
It’s seamless, and I’ve frequently spent several hours in-game when I only meant to pop online for half an hour to hand in a couple of quests. And what could be a bigger indicator that World of Warcraft is returning to its glory days than accidentally losing an entire afternoon playing?
The next patch: 10.0.7, is due out pretty soon, and it looks like we’re getting some interesting solo gameplay in the form of the Zskera Vault with some exciting high item-level rewards attached. While I was initially a little worried that this could repeat Torghast’s mistakes in Shadowlands, Blizzard promised this will only act as a catch-up mechanic in Dragonflight’s first season – another telling sign that they’re learning from their mistakes.
No one wants this expansion to succeed more than the game’s long-suffering playerbase, and while there have, of course, been a few hiccups along the road, so far, it just might be one of World of Warcraft’s greatest. Here’s hoping we can still say the same in two years time.